The River Mountain Trail
by Shauna Sharp
The River Mountain Trail is one of Boulder City’s greatest outdoor assets. The two and a half mile long trail climbs 1,200 feet to the summit of Black Mountain Overlook, with Lake Mead off to the east serving as a backdrop. The trail treads through classic Mohave Desert country as it meanders across the creosote-covered lower flank of Red Mountain, then turns into George’s Canyon where it ascends to a saddle separating Red Mountain and Black Mountain Overlook. It then continues on to the summit of Black Mountain Overlook off to the east. The reward at the top is a 360-degree view of Lake Mead and Fortification Hill to the east, Las Vegas and Mount Charleston to the north and west, and Boulder City and El Dorado Playa to the south. You may even see a herd of bighorn sheep or a lone desert tortoise. Early morning hikers will occasionally see coyotes.
Boulder City resident George Cox was first introduced to the River Mountain Trail in 1957 during a visit while courting Theda Cox. George started hiking the trail on a consistent basis in 1980. Since that time, he has hiked the trail three days per week. To date, George has hiked the trail over 4,500 times. As he states, “I have been on the mountain in fog, rain, hail, snow and winds so high, I was blown off the trail.”
There is an obvious short spur trail above the floor of George’s Canyon that leaves from one of the hairpin turns before you reach the saddle. Take this to its end and peer down the gulch some 15-20 feet below to a big reddish rock on the left side. You will discover a little burnished copper plaque mounted on the face of the rock. It commemorates George Cox’s 3,000th hike up the trail. The plaque was presented by his daughter in 2001, and has become a staple in the lore of the trail. In fact, it is the origin of the name George’s Canyon, an informal name applied to this formerly unnamed tributary canyon to Hemenway Wash.
The trail was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1937-1938. It now ranks as the finest preserved CCC trail in all of Nevada. The CCC was a depression era work relief program instituted by President Roosevelt. The young men who built the trail were recruits from Midwest states such as Ohio, Kentucky Kentucky and West Virginia. The CCCers were between 17 and 28 years old, clean cut and ambitious. They had to be unemployed and unmarried in order to serve. They were organized into companies and assigned to specific work details. They were put to work around Lake Mead as the reservoir filled in order to create recreational facilities for lake visitors; the River Mountain Trail was one of those facilities. The route of the trail was surveyed to take optimum advantage of the topography. Consequently, it was carefully built to minimize unnecessary up and down grades; however, when it goes up, it really does go up! Difficult sections were blasted using hand drilled holes loaded with dynamite; no machines were used here.
The River Mountain Trail lies within the River Mountains-Bootleg Canyon Park, which is owned by Boulder City. The park is administered by the Boulder City Parks and Recreation Department. There is no charge for admission. The trail is dedicated solely to foot traffic.
Most people come to enjoy the views, wildlife and desert plants, including a few species of cactus on the lower parts. However, the trail itself is a historic piece of work. Some of the best scenic highlights are the many walled up sections that the CCC workers built across draws and drop-offs in order for the trail to have a gentle grade. The biggest is located on the upper flank of Black Mountain Overlook, just before you enter the last switchbacks to the top. Three sets of switchbacks, the pride of the CCC workers who built the trail, occur along the trail. The first is the longest and most dramatic switchback which climbs out of George’s Canyon up to the saddle between the two mountains. The second climbs out of the saddle onto the side of Black Mountain Overlook. The third rises to its summit.
Fall, winter and spring are the most favored times of year for hiking the trail, because temperatures are ideal. Usually you can enjoy the trail with a warm shirt or a light jacket in the winter. People do hike the trail at the height of the summer, but then you must have sun protection and plenty of water. The round trip takes about two and a half hours or more.
Always follow the golden rule of outdoor edict when you use the River Mountain Trail: take nothing but photos and leave nothing but your footprints!